I saw Twelve Years a Slave yesterday, noting how painful it is to see our inhumanity so evident and widespread. I say "our" because it is in each of us -- that propensity to think and feel superior or "better than" another. Slavery is an extreme example of that sort of thinking. This thinking, and the actions stemming from it, is the root of all human acts of evil.
Countering our inhumanity means noticing this sort of thinking when it arises in oneself and self-correcting. Jonas Salk, the man who discovered the polio vaccine, said, "life is an error-making and error-correcting process." Our inhumanity, in this case slavery, is that error-making not corrected.
"Better than" thinking arises in subtle forms all the time. For some, it arises easily along economic lines, for others racial, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, or behavior. The other day I noticed a twinge of it arise when I came across a mental health residential treatment center near one of my children's apartments. My initial reaction was "Oh, I don't want them so close to my child's home" but then I self-corrected, remembering our core equality in value, and how our behavioral differences do not affect that. We are a diverse species and our variability - along behavioral, physical, and sociocultural dimensions -- is a valuable feature of our evolution, something not to divide us. I reminded myself of the biology of mental illness -- a field I had spent 30 years of my life's work within -- and how it does not define a person, any more than skin color or religious preference or other dimension of our differences. I self-corrected my "better than" thinking. Bringing it into my own consciousness for investigation was an important piece of that process.
Slavery exists today with as much brutality as depicted in the film if not more. Some estimates place it as high as four million people bought and sold per year for the purpose of labor or sex. The movie is a reminder that we must take action to end it.
One means of working toward this end is to bring our own "better than" thinking to the fore, into our conscious awareness. Learning to detect it when it arises, no matter how small, is a first step in that direction. Ignorance is a powerful means of fueling our Inhumanity.
The new year is a great time of renewal, a time to set an intention to catch yourself when such thinking arises and self-correct. If we all spend time and attention on our errors of thinking AND self-correcting, it will be a natural 'next step' to take action in the world from that place of Humanity.
The end of slavery is an outcome we can make happen.